Shrinking Pa.'s Prison Population

Philadelphia Inquirer
By: Marc Mauer and Judith Greene
Published: March 25, 2010
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New Jersey and a few other states have shown the way.

A new report by the Pew Center on the States shows that while the national prison population declined last year for the first time in 38 years, Pennsylvania's number of inmates increased more than any other state's. Unless policymakers address the factors contributing to these figures, the state risks continued high incarceration costs, which will come at the expense of education and other services.

Especially given the serious fiscal challenges facing the states, gaining control of the prison population is a critical issue for policymakers. Fortunately, recent developments in a few states offer a road map for producing sustained declines in prison populations.

Four states - New Jersey, New York, Michigan, and Kansas - have reduced their prison populations by 5 percent to 20 percent since 1999. They have done so through targeted changes in policy and practice, and with no adverse impact on public safety.

Policymakers in these states have responded to the dynamics of their own criminal justice systems, but they have all attempted to reduce both the number of people entering prison and the length of time they stay there.

To reduce the number of low-level drug defendants being sentenced to prison, legislators in New York scaled back the state's notoriously harsh Rockefeller drug laws. Their counterparts in Michigan reformed the "650 Lifer Law," which imposed mandatory life sentences for offenses involving at least 650 grams (about 23 ounces) of cocaine or heroin, even for first-time offenders.

The four states' sentencing reforms have aimed not just to reduce prison time, but also to better address substance abuse. In Kansas, for example, the Legislature amended the state's sentencing guidelines to divert people convicted of drug possession to treatment rather than incarceration. In New York, the Brooklyn district attorney established a treatment diversion program for defendants who would otherwise have faced mandatory prison terms.

Another key issue is the rate at which states send parole violators back to prison, often for technical violations of parole conditions and not necessarily for new offenses. Here, too, there's much to learn from the four states.

In New Jersey, the establishment of Regional Assessment Centers - residential facilities designed to evaluate risk and service needs among parole violators - has cut the rate at which parolees return to prison from 81 percent to 46 percent.

The Michigan parole board has established "reentry prisons" to prepare inmates for release. It's also making more use of electronic monitoring and other intermediate sanctions for technical parole violators. These changes accounted for nearly half the reduction in the number of people entering prison over a recent two-year period.

Federal help could be on the way for other states looking to control their prison populations. Bipartisan legislation recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would offer grants to state and local governments for analyzing institutional populations and developing more cost-effective sanctions and services in their justice systems.

While these developments hold the promise of improving the justice system, we also have to change our overall approach to public safety. Communities that we think of as safe are not those with the most police and the most people going to prison, but rather those with the resources to provide support to families and children.

At a time of national economic distress, we have an opportunity to rebalance our public-safety strategy with that in mind. By strengthening communities' capacity to support the next generation of children, we can create greater opportunity for all while enhancing public safety.

Marc Mauer is the executive director of the Sentencing Project and the author of "Race to Incarcerate." Judith Greene is principal of Justice Strategies. For more information, see